Impending end of Covid era policy is likely playing role in latest flood of arrivals at border
EL PASO, Texas—As federal immigration authorities continue to release migrants by the thousands, El Paso officials and local charities are near a breaking point in the sprawling border city.
Large groups of migrants, including a large contingent of Nicaraguans who crossed the border on Sunday, have been streaming across the Rio Grande in recent days. U.S. Border Patrol facilities housed more than 5,000 people on Wednesday and roughly 1,700 migrants were released, according to data from the City of El Paso.
“We’ve never seen migration numbers to this extent and for such a sustained period,” said Mario D’Agostino, the city’s deputy city manager for public safety in a briefing this week.
“My country is hard; there’s no work and our president is very bad,” Katherine Urbina, a 28-year-old from Nicaragua who was traveling with relatives and friends, said of why she came to the U.S. now. “We can’t buy rice and beans. If you buy one, you can’t buy the other.”
Ms. Urbina said she and relatives were part of the large group that crossed on Sunday and spent several hours standing on the U.S. side of the river, waiting to surrender to Border Patrol so they could ask for asylum.
It is unclear what triggered the latest wave of migrants, but authorities suspect the impending end of Title 42, may be a factor. The law was first used at the border by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic to block most migrants from being allowed into the U.S. to apply for asylum. Federal authorities have warned that its end could, at least initially, lead to a significant rise in border crossings.
A federal judge has ordered the Biden administration to stop expelling migrants under the law by Dec. 21.
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials were considering a move to expand a program creating a legal process for Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum to also include Nicaraguans, Cubans and Haitians, amid the recent surge.
The surge in migrants into El Paso prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has been among the most vocal critics of the Biden administration’s handling of the border, to restart commercial vehicle inspections at international bridges in El Paso and other border crossings. A similar effort was scrapped in the spring after cross-border commerce ground to a near standstill.
On Wednesday, Mr. Abbott also called on the state’s attorney general to investigate allegations that some nongovernmental agencies supporting migrants had actually helped them cross the border illegally.
Meanwhile, with shelters full, some migrants have spent the night sleeping outside as overnight temperatures have been at or below freezing this week. Migrants crowded outside bus stations Wednesday wrapped themselves in blankets provided by the Red Cross and other charities. Hundreds of others have taken to spending the night at the airport while waiting for morning flights.
Mario Jose Rizo, 32, has spent the last two nights sleeping outside the Greyhound station with his sister-in-law, Ms. Ubrina, and other relatives and friends who all left Nicaragua in early November.
Mr. Rizo and his group have bus tickets to Loudon, Tenn., about 35 miles west of Knoxville, but can’t leave until Friday. They plan to spend the rest of the week in the same spot.
“We’ve been here for two days and we’ll stay the next two,” Mr. Rizo said. He said he and his family were among a large group of migrants who said they were kidnapped in Durango and held in an abandoned property for nearly a week before being rescued by the military and eventually being driven to Ciudad Juárez by Mexican state officials.
Once in Juárez, Ms. Urbina said, they were dropped off at a local shelter. “After that, we were free to go across the border,” Ms. Urbina said. The group plans to reunite with her husband, who made the same trek about 4 months ago and has found work picking mushrooms.
Mr. Rizo and Ms. Urbina said their group hadn’t tried to find space in a local shelter but were fine staying outside. Volunteers have dropped by with blankets, coats and food in recent days.
FEDERAL AGENCIES PLANNING HOW TO RELEASE MORE MIGRANTS WHEN TRUMP-ERA TITLE 42 ASYLUM LIMITS END
The Department of Homeland Security said more migrants may be released into the United States to pursue immigration cases when Trump-era asylum restrictions end in one of its most detailed assessments ahead of the major policy shift.
The department reported faster processing for migrants in custody on the border, more temporary detention tents, staffing surges and increased criminal prosecutions of smugglers, noting progress on a plan announced in April.
But the seven-page document dated December 13 included no major structural changes amid unusually large numbers of migrants entering the country. More are expected with the end of Title 42 authority, under which migrants have been denied rights to seek asylum more than 2.5 million times on grounds of preventing spread of COVID-19.
A federal judge in Washington ordered Title 42 to end Dec. 21 but Republican-led states asked an appeals court to keep it in place. The Biden administration has also challenged some aspects of the ruling, though it does not oppose letting the rule lapse. The legal back-and-forth could go down to the wire.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled recently to El Paso, Texas, which witnessed a large influx on December 11 after becoming the busiest corridor for illegal crossings in October. El Paso has been a magnet for Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans and other nationalities.
The geographic shift to Texas’ westernmost reaches was likely a result of smugglers’ calculations on the best route, said Nicolas Palazzo, an attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.
Like other advocacy groups that work directly with directly with Homeland Security, Palazzo said he has had no conversations with the department about post-Title 42 planning. One key question: How will authorities process migrants who have long been waiting to seek asylum?
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Customs and Border Protection officials told him on December 14 that about 50,000 migrants are believed to be waiting to cross once Title 42 is lifted.
Authorities plan to admit those seeking asylum who go through ports of entry but return to Mexico those who cross illegally between official crossings, Cuellar said in an interview. It was unclear how they will return nationalities that Mexico won’t accept — like Cubans and Nicaraguans — and are difficult to send home due to strained diplomatic relations and other challenges.
Administration officials are developing additional measures, which Cuellar said they would not disclose.
“I think the first week is going to be a little bit of chaos,” he said.